In her introduction to the 1991 edition of Dust Tracks on a Road, noted poet and author Maya Angelou states, “It is difficult, if not impossible to find and touch the real Zora Neale Hurston.” Hurston’s autobiography certainly reveals many gaps and silences that raise many questions about her life. According to critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Hurston’s narrative has two voices that call attention to the simultaneous existence of two fragmented cultures in the United States—modern American culture and African American culture. The narrative voice of Dust Tracks on a Road at one moment is speaking as one formally educated in the Western European tradition and at the next moment is speaking in African American dialect from the store’s porch in Eatonville, Florida.
The tension between these cultures and voices accounts for several of the seeming contradictions in Hurston’s narrative. For example, Hurston relates the story of the elderly white man who helped bring her into the world and who later became her friend. This “gray-haired white man” told her never to lie, that only “niggers lie and lie.” Hurston claims she understood that her white friend was speaking not of race but of class; however, she later states that her favorite pastime was listening to the “lyin’” sessions that took place on the porch of the local store, and that “anyone whose mouth was cut sideways” was given to lying. In such instances, Hurston’s voice reflects the double consciousness of which W. E. B. Du Bois spoke, a sense of standing outside oneself and viewing oneself with the consciousness of the oppressor. Gates suggests that the “real” Zora Neale Hurston can be found in the silences between these two voices, that she is both and neither. Hurston speaks of standing outside her culture as an observer at an early age. She states that she felt a “terrible aloneness” because she was in a “world of vanished communion” with her people.
As an African American feminist, Hurston’s voice reflects not only the tension of a black in a nonblack world but also the tension of a woman in a male-dominated society. The reader senses not a double, but a triple consciousness in Hurston’s account of the lyin’ sessions on the porch at the store. While Hurston states that she loved to listen to the stories that were “passed through” the men’s mouths on the porch, the purpose of many of the stories were to elevate men at the expense of women. The porch tales reinforced feelings of male superiority while insisting on female inferiority and submission. The mostly male sessions were punctuated with comments such as “Ada Dell is ruint, you know!”, or a tale was told that ended with the comparison of a woman to “an old tin can out of the trash pile.” Hurston’s criticism of the “porch talkers” was personal. It was, to some extent, the reflection of her relationship with her own father. She states that her father was used to being “a hero” on the store porch and in church, and therefore was angry when his intelligence was challenged at home. The real Hurston stood alone, outside the role that society had created for her as a woman.
Hurston’s voice, or voices, can be located in the tensions created by the intersection of race and gender and in the creative linguistic practices that characterize her autobiography. The images and metaphors that occur repeatedly in her text are a careful “naming” of her emotions, a common practice in African American culture. In the account of her mother’s death, Hurston personifies Death as a strange...
(This entire section contains 762 words.)
being with “huge square toes” who lives in a secret place in her yard. Although Death is polite to Lucy Potts Hurston, he has a weapon in his hand. In all Hurston’s personifications of Death, he carries a weapon, a symbol of ultimate victory or defeat. Hurston is also obsessed with the subjects of God and religion. She discusses her father’s role as minister, describes the church services she attended as a child, and then explains why she sees religion in more universal terms. She tells her readers that she has made peace “with the universe” as she found it. Peace with the universe was necessary for Hurston because, perhaps more than any other writer of her era, she spoke from the periphery of both her own community and the larger society in which she lived in order to address the tensions created by the intersection of race and gender.